So how did other countries handle the shift to distance learning?

A new report shines light on the key steps top-performing school systems took to thrive during the pandemic.

1374
Paul Hanaoka, Unsplash

Naomi Thiers

Are you curious how other countries’ school systems have fared with the sudden switch to remote or hybrid learning, and what countries who’ve found this shift less disruptive to learning have done to see (relative) success?

A report by The National Center on Education and the Economy (NCEE)—“How Did the World’s Highest Performing Education Systems Approach Distance Learning?”—looks at how school systems generally considered high performing implemented distance learning during the pandemic, particularly which countries have been most successful and what kind of actions their school systems took to keep teachers, students, and learning strong. Here are highlights—which may give leaders of U.S. school districts ideas for how to respond more nimbly if future public health or other crises demand sudden transformations.

Set contingency plans—and practice, practice, practice. One finding was that many countries whose schools performed well in the switch to distance learning were better positioned for this pivot because they had already emergency distance learning plans in place. Sometimes this was because of prior experience with dire public health threats. Singapore, for instance, had developed an emergency distance learning system when it faced SARS in 2005 and has kept that system on standby. Singapore’s teachers get regular training in how to organize and facilitate distance learning and teachers and students ​practice​ distance learning annually. 

Use common curriculum and curated resources. Schools tended to have better success if they already had in place jurisdiction-level curriculum frameworks that set common expectations for the content students must learn and skills they must develop. These goals, understood by all teachers, provided a clear framework around which to organize distance learning. 

Most top-performing jurisdictions had also begun to organize, pre-COVID, high-quality digital teaching and learning resources to support learning in all subjects and grade levels in the curriculum—and to make these curated resources easily accessible. In Hong Kong, the Education Bureau’s One-Stop Portal for Teaching and Learning Resources​, ​launched​ in 2012, provides digital resources, searchable by curriculum, subject, grade level, and by Hong Kong’s Four​ ​Key Tasks​ (recommended focus areas for curriculum implementation). Singapore’s ​Student Learning Space​, ​introduced in all schools in 2018, also includes curriculum-aligned digital resources. Poland’s Scholaris​ repository offers nearly 28,000 digital resources to support the design and teaching of interactive lessons. 

Top-performing countries also have ways to monitor the quality of digital tools and resources included on officially curated lists, such as by identifying expert teachers to create such offerings or subjecting any resources submitted to central resource repositories to a strict review process.

Invest in teachers’ skills—no winging it.  Investing in educators was another key strategy of schools that transitioned successfully. These schools ensured that their teachers could use the available digital tools and resources effectively. And they started doing so before the crisis hit.

Finland, for example, provided national-level funding​ from 2015 to 2019 to prepare a network of “tutor-teachers” to serve as mentors for their peers. Tutor-teachers’ ​responsibilities​ included identifying or developing new solutions for teaching with technology and building their peers’ skills in this area through individual and group support.

Top-performing countries also leveraged expert teachers to support digital learning beyond their individual classrooms. China, for example, had experienced, high-achieving teachers record televised lessons for primary school students and​ ​create​ lesson materials for the national ​online learning platform​ for secondary school students.

Get specific with guidance for teachers. It wasn’t just having a head start that helped some countries do better in the switch to distance learning. Top performers also quickly created strong, specific guidance for teachers and schools in response to certain challenges related to teaching remotely. The Canadian provinces of ​Alberta​ and ​Ontario​, for example, released guidelines by grade span for the total number of hours of student work per week and the focus subjects for this work. ​Hong Kong​ and ​Poland​ created weekly calendars of suggested online activities, by grade level or grade span, for the duration of school closures. Top performers also provided guidance and additional supports for serving students with special needs. Estonia’s nationwide network of regional counseling centers ​reached out to help ​schools design distance learning and related essential supports for kids with special needs. Schools’ strategies ​included​ identifying one educator, such as a teacher or support specialist, responsible for monitoring each student’s needs and progress during distance learning.

Ensure kids—and families—have what they need. Successful systems took concrete actions to ensure that students who didn’t have access to technology could fully participate. Schools in ​Singapore​ remained open for a small number of students who needed access to technology or teacher support—and administrators reached out to families to offer this support. Schools also loaned families devices. At the end of one month of distance learning, Singapore ​reported​ a student participation rate of 96 percent.

In addition, top performers created resources to support families’ efforts to facilitate distance learning. British Columbia (Canada), for example, provided a set of digital teaching and learning ​resources​ specifically for families to use at home, which included general guidelines for organizing distance learning. Estonia’s regional counseling centers offered on-demand ​advice​ for families via online chat.

The NCEE report, which is written conversationally and packed with helpful links, also shows how top-performing systems are identifying and addressing any learning gaps and rethinking standardized assessments following a year of distance learning. Approaches these systems are using for reopening schools are described.

U.S. district leaders struggling with how to do distance learning successfully now, and to address students’ needs once schools start to reopen, will surely find helpful ideas and examples from other countries by exploring this report.


Naomi Thiers is the managing editor of Educational Leadership magazine.